Conventional success – an unrealistic expectation for many disabled people

Well, friends, I’ve just had an encounter on Twitter with someone spouting some very awful ableist things, leading me to write a lot of thoughts on my personal Twitter page. I thought it might be a good idea to basically get these thoughts out on here too. It will probably end up a fairly disjointed post about ableism, abled people’s expectations of disabled people, and the justification of internet activism and defense of its critics.

Basically, the person in question claimed in less polite words that disabled people who don’t achieve success have simply given up on it. The only difference between those who do and those who don’t is willpower, I was told. Two words = Helen Keller. Apparently because Helen Keller overcame her obstacles, I was told, none of the rest of us really have an excuse. The person did not heed that fact that not everyone has the same disabilities as Helen, never mind the resources. It’s a given fact that rich disabled people usually manage to reach more conventional success than the rest of us, because they have money for aids and resources that we don’t. (Case in point, I would have fewer problems with my upcoming Masters, mainly because I could have bought a motorized wheelchair a long time ago and moved to a city that offered different courses part-time.)

This person did not heed the fact that failing to find the strength to continue life seeking our pleasures is most often a symptom of mental illness, not laziness. Along with Helen Keller, they used themselves as the holy grail of “disabled people who achieved success”, implying that because some can, the rest of us are simply making excuses for ourselves. We’re often called pessimistic or defeatist for accepting that particular activities or paths are beyond our limits, while it’s actually more harmful for people to cling to the idea that they can do *anything* with willpower and injure themselves, mentally and physically, by pursuing something because society will not allow us to step back and say “No, I can’t.”

Recognizing our personal limits and acting upon them to say “I can’t” is not the same thing as just giving up on everything. In fact, we disabled people often can only get through a normal day with sheer willpower and stubbornness. No, it’s not a miracle that a disabled person left the house–we’re not here for inspiration porn–but it’s a fact that many of us have to put so much more into the little daily things that people take for granted. And for those of us suffering from mental illness, sometimes just literally surviving the day is a success.

But abled people have a very one-sided idea of success, going somewhere along the lines of being functionally independent, making lots of money and having a conventional job. For many disabled people, this is not an accessible path. Often if we do manage to get a conventional job, we cannot work full-time, need plenty of accommodations, and such things. Many of us are always going to need a family member, partner, or friend around to help us out with some things. According to society, these “dependencies” are the result of us not working hard enough for our full independence. I don’t understand why we are not “allowed” to seek help; of course we want as much independence as we can, but independence should not involve stubbornly refusing help for things and making ourselves worse because we feel like we must do every little thing for ourselves or we’re failures.

One thing the person literally said was that we’re at fault because every moment we spend tackling ableism online is not spent applying for jobs instead. Wowee. There are a few points in here that are implied to me: 1. that disabled people are not allowed to have “free time” and hobbies; every moment we’re awake we must be *bettering ourselves*, 2. that internet activism is unimportant, futile, and not a measure of success. I don’t know about you guys, but challenging ableism and changing the views and behaviors of people toward oppressive groups is success in my book!

Sometimes, when engaging with ableists, I do get anxious and/or bitter. It’s often the time I simply block them for the sake of my mental health and no longer engage. But, like today, much of the time I’m perfectly calm and civil. Of course the person I’m engaging usually decides I’m the stereotype of an angry crip and uses my apparent anger at my oppression to dismiss everything I’m saying. While this is problematic even if the oppressed defender *is* angry (we are justified to be angry at our systematic oppression after all!), it also demonstrates the infantilization disabled people go through where, if we say anything with passion or emotion, we’re written off as children taking tantrums. Any mention of our disabilities or the obstacles we face, and we’re told we’re “wallowing in self-pity” and that a negative attitude isn’t going to solve anything. Aside from the fact that we’re justified to have days where we do feel sad and bitter about our experiences, it shows that disability is viewed inherently as something that should never be mentioned. If you do, you’re complaining and whining about your experiences. Those of us who are very open and vocal about our disabilities are often regarded as spending our every moment wallowing in our “misfortune” instead of just shutting up about it and getting on with life.

People often believe that any level of engagement with something can be transferred to the equivalent hours in a job, for example, if someone spends some days a week volunteering, undertaking a hobby, or, indeed, writing a blog about disability or combatting ableism online, then “why can’t you spend that same time doing a job instead?” I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about how oversimplified this is. Volunteering brings so many accommodations that are difficult to find in a paid job, such as extended breaks during the workday, extended periods off, deputizing duties to colleagues, working a very low number of hours a week. Re hobbies, we can spend a very long time producing something that may not seem like much at all to an abled worker. I crochet when I’m able. If my job were crocheting (just as an example, haha), I doubt my employer would be satisfied enough with my rate of output to keep me in the job. We often wake up in the morning with no idea whether we can make it in or not. The companies I volunteer for know this, and I don’t need to panic every time I can’t make it that I’ve let everyone down because they don’t have anyone else to do my job. I have extended periods of time where making it in is the rare exception, rather than not making it in. How many employers would pay me for a few hours a week to take long breaks, not do tasks I can’t manage, and when I’m not even able to turn up half the time? Of course I’m trying to find a position that works for me, but it’s a very simplified view of things.

Re online activism: people don’t realize that this is what many of us do in our spare time, alongside rather than “instead of” working, for one. So to suggest that we are wasting our time doing this when we should be working just reinforces the “disabled people aren’t allowed free time” idea. The other massive issue with it is people suggesting it’s ineffective and futile to even try. Ironic, isn’t it, that the same people who call us defeatist for identifying and living within our limits will say “Don’t bother fighting ableism; it’ll always exist, so you’re wasting your time”. Well, out of magically curing my disability and making the world less ableist, I know which one I actually have a chance to achieve. As I said on my Twitter, “No amount of willpower is going to make me able to walk, grow money out of nowhere, and balance my brain’s chemicals.”

In a nutshell, just because what a disabled person is doing with their life doesn’t fit conventional success, that doesn’t make it meaningless or mean that we’re just not trying. It means that “success” isn’t a monolith, and that different people with different obstacles have different goals in their lives. You don’t know how much or how little they’re trying, and you certainly don’t know how much meaning their lives have.

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About wolfennacht

I'm a 25 year old disabled polyglot who mainly spends time writing novels and poetry, teaching myself languages, and reading too much. I use a wheelchair. I am currently a grad student in biomedical science. I mainly blog about my physical and mental illnesses and procrastinate writing on my crochet blog!
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